Robert Smalls 6th-grader dies, remembered at vigil

Coroner's office rules death a suicide

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comMay 1, 2014 

  • Statement about Celeste Wills' death

    Robert Smalls Middle School administrators prepared this statement, which was given to teachers and students the morning of May 1, 2014.

    10/08/2001 – 04/30/2014

    It is sad to say goodbye to a member of our Robert Smalls Family. Celeste was a student with many admirable qualities. She possessed an imaginative mind and she was fearless with her take-charge focus. It was not uncommon to hear her say, “I get this. Let me do it!” This was her attitude as she embraced her academics, devoured books, and excelled in strings. These were her creative outlets. We want to honor the memory of Celeste and remember the many ways she made Robert Smalls Middle School a better school because she was one of us. Celeste was an honor student, a musically gifted student, an office helper, and a friend. Our memories are joyful of you while our hearts are heavy. We send our love, support, and prayers to her family and to her beloved sisters, Zoe and Raven.

Empty boxes of tissues sat in the bleachers of Robert Smalls Middle School's gymnasium around 7:30 Thursday night.

A little more than an hour before, about 300 people crowded into the facility to share hugs, memories and tears as they mourned the loss of a 12-year-old student who died this week.

Celeste Wills was found dead Wednesday in her Shell Point home, according to Beaufort County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Sgt. Robin McIntosh. Beaufort County Deputy Coroner David Ott ruled Friday that suicide by gunshot was the cause of death. The Sheriff's Office is investigating.

The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet do not report on suicides except in rare circumstances, including when the public is widely affected.

"This has been a really difficult 24 hours," school guidance counselor Tammy Videla said during the vigil. "We are feeling a lot of pain, and there are a lot of questions that don't have answers."

Students and staff were joined by Beaufort County school board members, district officials, church leaders and community members at the vigil.

"On this evening, it is an evening that we as a school wanted to come together and remember our beloved sixth-grade student Celeste," principal Denise Smith said.

The girl's family -- parents Dale and Clarissa Wills and older sisters Raven and Zoe -- smiled at the fond descriptions given of Celeste's positive spirit and radiant personality. Her parents declined to comment Thursday night.

Community Bible Church pastor Ed Vernoy said the grieving community might not have the answers they want or are looking for, but that people must learn to trust and accept what has happened.

Vernoy spent Wednesday night with the girl's family, praying and comforting them.

Celeste was a bright student who had no behavioral issues, according to Smith. An honors student who loved to read, she was a talented musician and artist and was well-liked and respected by her peers, Smith said.

Celeste worked as an helper in the school's main office this quarter, where she got to know the staff and administration well.

"The child we saw and knew and worked with on a daily basis here was just such a happy kid, always smiling," Smith said.

Battery Creek High School sophomore Sarahi Rodriguez agreed. She said her younger sister was close to Celeste, who was a frequent guest in the Rodriguez home.

"She just brought smiles to all of our faces," Rodriguez said. "Everyone is just in shock and really is devastated."

Robert Smalls' teachers read a prepared statement to students Thursday morning informing them of the girl's death, Smith said. Many students were crying, and parents came to the school to check on them.

The school also brought in guidance counselors, social workers and clergymen to support and comfort students, Beaufort County School District spokesman Jim Foster said. Those individuals will also be at the school Friday.

Robert Smalls' students are allowed to wear either a blue shirt or a blue ribbon Friday in Celeste's honor. Blue was her favorite color.

At the vigil Thursday, mourners signed and decorated fabric squares that will be made into a blanket for the Wills family.

"There is a lot of shock, and this is the grieving process before we can begin the healing process," Randy Roberts, pastor at Love House Ministries, said earlier Thursday. "The students are trying to make sense of this."

Laura Donath, a close family friend, said Celeste was artistic like her mother, who owns the shop Beauty Marks Tattoos & Piercings in Beaufort.

"She made Robert Smalls a better school because she was one of us and a part of it," Smith said. "Our memories are so joyful of her, while our hearts are very heavy now with her loss."

Reporter Laura Oberle contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at

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